IOWA CITY — Iowa had the misfortune Saturday night of playing the only football team more comfortable in Kinnick Stadium than the Hawkeyes.
Kinnick, with a reputation for being a Bates Motel for visitors, remained a noisy-but-charming bed-and-breakfast for the Badgers.
Wisconsin’s 28-17 win Saturday was its fifth straight here. One was by 1 point, another by 2. This one was just as maddening for the home team, maybe more. Everyone who watched it knows the score doesn’t tell the story. You could barely fit a sheet of paper between the two teams in terms of formidability.
But the Badgers didn’t blink. Didn’t beat themselves. Didn’t wilt. Did what needed to be done when it needed to be done late in the game. Played like the two-time defending champs of the Big Ten West.
Iowa, meanwhile, played like a team good enough to beat Wisconsin and anyone else on its schedule. Except for, you know, playing like a Pee-Wee team when it came to punt returns.
“Get the hell away,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said at his postgame press conference, and not because he had gone all Nick Saban after a tough loss.
No, that was Ferentz’s answer to a question about what his staff teaches when a punt is bouncing around deep in Iowa territory.
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That referred to the Wisconsin punt that ended up touching the left heel of the Hawkeyes’ Shaun Beyer midway through the third quarter. Badgers freshman Travian Blaylock pounced on it at the Iowa 10, and his team cashed in a gift touchdown three plays later.
That was the last in a trilogy of punt-return follies for the Hawkeyes. The opening act was Kyle Groeneweg fumbling the ball away at midfield after a 23-yard return. The middle mistake was Groeneweg calling for a fair catch at the Iowa 3. Then came the giveaway at the 10.
Calling all that the difference in the game is true, false, whatever. Iowa turned around and had a gorgeous 75-yard touchdown drive after the Wisconsin gimmee, and held a 17-14 lead when it had a second-and-5 at its 47 with six minutes left.
Then Nate Stanley, who combined with Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook to give the Fox television audience a splendid quarterbacking show, had to throw the ball away for an incompletion, and on third down did so again when he was under fire from a Badgers blitz.
Iowa’s punt was fielded cleanly by Wisconsin at its 7, and was returned to the 12 with 5:40 left. The game was in the hands of the Hawkeyes’ defense. And, the Badgers’ offense.
Ten plays later, Hornibrook threw a great 17-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Taylor with 57 seconds left for the go-ahead score.
The teams’ yardage totals were almost identical. The Badgers, however, never shot themselves in the feet. Had Iowa converted a fourth-and-1 at the Wisconsin 5 on its first drive, it might have taken ownership of this thing early. And, Hornibrook made play after play when it mattered most.
“They know who he is and what he is,” Ferentz said, “and when they go to him, he responds pretty favorably.”
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Such a thin margin between the two teams, but Wisconsin has the early hammer in the West race and Iowa must string together a lot of wins to climb onto the national radar, let alone vie for the West title should the Badgers falter.
Oh, how the dreamers could have dreamed in Hawkeyeville had their men held on in this one. Starting the Big Ten season with a win over the Badgers and owning the divisional tiebreaker over them would have made for a rosy outlook.
Instead, it’s four of the next five games on the road with a map that won’t lead to Indianapolis unless Iowa plays fantastic ball and gets some help from Wisconsin’s foes.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Ferentz said. “The thing that excites me is that I think we’ve got a lot of potential to get better.”
He has a good team. It might become very good. But for now and maybe always, there will be a nagging feeling that a lot more than a brass bull got away from the Hawkeyes Saturday night.
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